As the BP oil disaster unfolded in 2010, many families of commercial fishermen in the Vietnamese community around the New Orleans neighborhood of Village de l'Est found themselves at least temporarily unemployed. In response, the neighborhood's Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corp. started a program to create new jobs. One result is the Village de l'Est Green Growers Initiative, or VEGGI, (504-457-8486; www.veggifarmcoop.com), a farmer's cooperative that distributes vegetables, hand-made tofu and other foods produced by residents to local markets and a network of local restaurants. Daniel Nguyen, a recent transplant from California, helps run the program along with Khai Nguyen.
Was it hard for fishermen to switch to farming?
NGUYEN: Fishing is an industry where folks have been doing it for generations, so it was hard to make that change. But they also had this background in farming and growing, even just in their backyards as part of what they do to feed their families. So this was a way to address workforce development without turning 180 degrees on them, like one day you're on a fishing boat and the next you have a desk job.
VEGGI works about 1.5 acres now and plans to expand to 9 acres. What's driving that growth?
NGUYEN: We started with backyard plots, where we figured we could supply maybe 12 to 25 restaurants. But we quickly found we weren't meeting market demand, which is a good problem to have. Chefs would give us the list of foods they want to source locally and it would go on for two pages. We weren't even close to meeting it all. There was a lot more demand than we anticipated.
These restaurants already have produce suppliers. Beyond the community aspect of VEGGI, how does your product stand out?
NGUYEN: It's the freshness of the product, because it's coming direct from right here in New Orleans, and it's the love and care that goes into it. Our farmers are literally out here with chopsticks picking insects off the plants; there's no pesticides. Plus we're able to experiment with something a chef asks us to grow for him. We can do that because we're not a 300-acre farm just growing salad mix. — IAN MCNULTY